When troops need satellite info in a hurry, they contact the 117th.
Sometimes a soldier’s best friend is an IT guy with a satellite dish.
In May 2013, after amassing evidence against the pirates, NCIS personnel needed up-to-date satellite imagery of the ships, providing enough detail to clearly identify them and their exact positions. But the imagery had to be taken from unclassified systems so that during a future criminal trial, prosecutors could show the photographs to those without security clearances.
Unable to task the top-secret satellites of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, NCIS personnel contacted a seven-person team of specialists who provided the investigators exactly what they needed. Given a roughly-60-square-mile area of the Indian Ocean where NCIS believed the pirates may have anchored the ships, the team requested imagery from the Worldview-1 commercial satellite, operated by Colorado-based Digitalglobe. “We were lucky to get several clear images free from fog, clouds, and weather, and started looking for anything that could possibly be the target,” explains team member John Colin. With a
FOR TWO YEARS, beginning in 2011, the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) had been building a case against a group of Somali pirates operating in the western Indian Ocean. Just off the coast of Somalia, the group held two vessels: the Albedo, a 520-foot container ship they took captive in November 2010, and the Naham 3, a 160-foot fishing ship they commandeered in March 2012. Demanding millions in ransom, they held dozens of the ships’ crew members hostage, starving, torturing, and in some cases killing them.
resolution of 0.5 meter (at just under 20 inches, the highest the U.S. government allowed at the time for commercial imagery), Colin and Amanda Gibson, another team member, scanned the recent black-and-white images. Three faint white pixels caught Gibson’s eye, and she zoomed in on them. “We found the boat!” Gibson said. The images revealed not only the Albedo but also the Naham 3, tethered with a mooring line to the larger container ship. The team passed the digital image files and geographic information to NCIS. “It took us just three hours!” says Colin of the satellite-based search.
Stationed at Naval Support Activity Bahrain, a U.S. Navy base in Manama, Bahrain, from May 2013 to January 2014, the team wasn’t part of the U.S. government’s intelligence agencies, nor any special operations group. Colin, a lieutenant, and Gibson, a sergeant, were members of a one-of-a-kind unit in the U.S. military: the 117th Space Battalion of the Colorado Army National Guard.
Unlike an Air Force squadron, a Marine Corps battalion, or an Army regiment, the 117th exists not for a single combat role or group of related roles but to provide the various capabilities of space-based assets—from communication to imaging. Lieutenant Colonel Martin Bortolutti, who was the 117th’s commanding officer when the operation to locate the pirates took place, explains that “Army space capability” includes spacebased assets not necessarily owned by the U.S. Army. “We can use those of other parties and agencies,” he says, including imagery from commercial satellites, like Digitalglobe’s Worldview-1. Each of the team has a specific job, from geospatial engineer to computer network specialist.
During their 2013-2014 tour, the 117th’s Commercial Imagery
Team, designated CIT 4, stayed busy. “Our mission was to support all of United States Central Command [a military operations area spanning 4.6 million square miles and comprising 20 nations, including nearly all of the Middle East] with commercial satellite imagery,” says Major Ben Howe, CIT 4’s team leader for that deployment. “A big advantage of commercial imagery is that it is unclassified and sharable with other government agencies, civilians, and host nations.” He notes that for most missions, half-meter resolution, although far bested by top-secret surveillance and reconnaissance satellites operated by the United States, is almost always sufficient.
Another mission had CIT 4 looking at every oil platform in the Persian Gulf to determine which, if any, were operating illegally, a request made by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. The team first undertook a broad search, one that wouldn’t be suitable for the Worldview-1 satellite. “That’s like looking through a soda straw toward the ground and water; it would take an untenable number of images to cover the entire gulf,” says Howe. For the initial survey, CIT 4 worked with the National Geospatial-intelligence Agency, which, among other tasks, procures commercial, unclassified imagery for the U.S. military. Through the NGA, the team tasked a commercial synthetic aperture radar satellite to scan the Persian Gulf, the first time the whole body of water was scanned. Once they’d mapped the oil platforms, the team employed the Worldview-1 to view each one up close.
The scan showed something the team hadn’t been looking for: that the Iranian government had extended a runway for its military aircraft and had constructed a number of bunkers on the island of Abu Musa, which sits at a critical point along the Strait of Hormuz. The 117th’s work also proved critical for the construction of a clean water project in Yemen; the imagery they provided helped locate potential wells. The unit created an up-to-date series of detailed maps of the Somali coast for the French navy, and after a bombing, quickly provided time-critical imagery of the area surrounding the U.S. Embassy at Bani Jamra, Bahrain.
Although commercially sourced, some of CIT 4’s products are used for classified purposes. Howe recalled the work CIT 4 performed for the Nelson Mandela funeral procession in December 2013: “I was talking with an extremely high-level Army staff member who was not going to be using the imagery directly. He was going to be giving it to someone else. And I didn’t ask or even speculate just who that was. That’s not my job.”
I wondered out loud if the high visibility of the funeral made the procession a tempting target for terrorists, and hence created an international interest in placing counterterrorism units, such as those of the U.S. Army Special Forces or Navy SEALS, along the route.
Howe stared blankly and waited for a question he could answer.
In addition to the CITS, the 117th deploys teams that typically work with secret and top-secret space-based assets to support
deployed U.S. military units. Called Army Space Support Teams, these groups assist troops in a number of ways. They provide accurate, highly detailed, laminated folding maps for field use. They monitor the military’s global positioning system to advise on its reliability. Sergeant Jules Tallant, a geospatial engineer in the 117th who deployed to Afghanistan in 2012-2013, explains that GPS satellites’ geometry is constantly changing, so the efficacy of the system for any location constantly changes. “We know where all the satellites will be at any time, so we can give a 24- or 48-hour model,” she says. “Operations planners can know that if the GPS isn’t going to be so great, maybe they don’t want to drop JDAMS [Gps-guided bombs].”
Tallant’s team also provided the Marines with a continuously operating system warning of a threat many might find surprising: incoming ballistic missiles. Nations such as China, Russia, and North Korea may not have all their missiles aimed at the United States; they may have at least some aimed where U.S. forces are massed, like the Marines in Afghanistan.
Because the Marine Corps does not possess its own dedicated space units, the 117th has been supporting Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq continuously over the past 10 years. “We’re one of the most frequently deployed National Guard units in the context of organized units for a full-tour, bootson-the-ground, combat theater deployment,” says Lieutenant Colonel Bortolutti.
In addition to directly supporting U.S. and coalition forces, the teams train others in using unclassified space assets. They’ve trained Afghan forces to create maps and other imagery products for security and combat operations so the nation will have these skills after Americans leave. Captain Jeff Wilson, a member of CIT 4, spent nearly 150 days traveling throughout five countries training local forces, including those of Iraq and Afghanistan, in using commercial imagery.
Because the 117th is a National Guard unit, specifically a Colorado unit, its members also provide expertise for domestic operations, including disaster relief, recovery, and emergency response planning. The 117th sent teams to help with the 2013 West Fork wildfires as well as flooding within the state.
Regardless of how it’s deployed, the 117th has a vantage useful to any combatant. “Space is the new high ground,” says Tallant, a reference to the centuries-old axiom that to win a conflict—be it against a human or adversary or nature—a force fights best from above.
In a word that isn’t even a word: F-4. Retired Marine Corps General Jack Dailey, the director of the National Air and Space Museum, flew the F-8 in the mid-1960s. “Everybody who flew that airplane loved it,” he says. “It was a single-seater, the way fighter pilots thought a fighter was supposed to be.” But upon Dailey’s arrival in Vietnam, he was assigned to an RF-4. He says the Crusader missed its war: It was too late for Korea, and by the time the Vietnam conflict got going, U.S. naval aviation was already well into its transition to the twin-engine, multi-role F-4 Phantom (see “Any Mission at Mach 2,” Feb./mar. 2015).
With a top speed of Mach 2.2, the F-4 could intercept airborne threats to the fleet faster and farther from the ships than the Crusader could, and it had the ability to fire at an enemy head on. Also, that second engine gave the F-4 better survivability— critical for pilots flying in combat and over wide stretches of ocean.
Of course, the F-8 still had something F-4 pilots desperately wanted but didn’t get for several years: guns. Four of them, firing 20mm rounds.
“There was this strange idea in the Department of Defense that the gun was passé,” says military aviation historian Richard P. Hallion. “And the gun has never been passé.” Compared to the missiles of today, he says, the air-to-air missiles arming F-4s and F-8s during Vietnam were primitive and unreliable.
Peter Mersky, the author of the Vietnam War, says that even though only two of the Crusader’s 19 MIG kills in Vietnam were made
“THE LAST OF THE GUNFIGHTERS” sounds like a Gary Cooper movie or a Zane Grey novel. But the top result in a Google search for that phrase is the Wikipedia page for a six-decade-old jet fighter, the Vought F-8 Crusader. Adopted by the U.S. Navy in 1957, this single-engine, 1,000-mph dogfighter downed 19 Migs during the Vietnam War and was an accurate, deadly strafer. Yet despite its service record, speed, and recognition for excellence—it won the 1956 Collier Trophy—the Crusader has fallen into obscurity. Why?
F-8 Crusader Units of
solely with guns, the F-8’s cannon were more than just a confidence booster for pilots. “The two official F-8 gun kills have since been augmented by other unofficially credited kills that used a combination of 20mm fire and a well-placed Sidewinder hit,” Mersky says.
The single-engine, single-seat F-8—originally the F8U-1 under the old Navy numbering system—was one of several aircraft born of the lessons of Korea, according to Hallion.
Former Senator John Glenn flew the F-8 as a U.S. Marine Corps major and test pilot at the naval air base at Patuxent River, Maryland, in the mid-1950s, and was an immediate fan. “I’d like to think what I could have done had I had it in Korea when we were flying against the Migs, compared to the F-86s,” he says. “With four 20mm cannons, it would have been better armed than the MIG. In dogfights I don’t know that it would have been much better in ability to turn, but it would have been better at controlling the battle because it could go higher and faster.”
The higher, faster F-8 was the Navy’s answer to the Air Force’s supersonic air superiority stud, the F-100 Super Sabre. You could almost hear Vought lead engineer Russell Clark and the rest of the design team say “Oh yeah?” on March 25, 1955, when test pilot John Konrad took the prototype, XF8-U, supersonic on its first flight. The following year, Navy test pilot R.W. “Duke” Windsor took the Crusader to 1,015 mph, a national speed record and an achievement that took the postwar Thompson Trophy away from the F-100.
Glenn, who was in charge of F-8 armament testing, recalls early problems with the cannons mounted on the side of the engine duct at the front of the aircraft. “When we fired the gun on the ground at a target it did okay, but when we did a two-second burst-fire with all four guns, the duct would flex and you had a big circular random pattern.” Vought beefed up the duct for later aircraft, but the initial solution was to send a cross-eyed airplane to the fleet. Glenn says, “To make up for that flexing we [made it] so when you looked down the boresight on the ground it was cross-eyed to the other side. We [adjusted the boresight by taking] the average of how far they were off-target when we did the two-second burst-fire.”
In 1957, Glenn famously completed Project Bullet, briefly stealing the transcontinental speed record back from the Air Force by flying an F-8 nonstop coast to coast in afterburner the entire trip, except during the three aerial refuelings required.
Slowing the first fighter capable of flying faster than 1,000 mph to a safe speed for landing on a
strut served as a reservoir for hydraulic fluid, so if you lost the landing gear and got airborne again, you had to go to the backup ram air turbine [to keep your flight controls working]. Trying to land with a broken landing gear was not really desirable.”
Miottel had a tailhook malfunction during landing, flying his disabled F-8 into a barricade erected on the flight deck. He describes the barricade as a “heavy-duty 20-foot-high tennis net” and the aircraft as a “multi-ton tennis ball on a 150-mph bad serve.” Everything went fine until the barricade tore off his left landing gear; the aircraft pivoted on its left wingtip and headed off the port side of the carrier. Miottel managed to jettison his canopy and yank a handle that released him from the ejection seat as he plunged into the water, and he jokes, “The old aviators’ maxim that ‘Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing’ was amended to incorporate the words ‘or swim.’ ”
Rear Admiral Bob Shumaker (ret.) also had an adventure involving a recalcitrant tailhook and a
( night landing during a Mediterranean cruise on the Saratoga in 1960. After making three landing attempts with a tailhook that wouldn’t come down, he says, “they told me to head to Italy, but I didn’t have enough fuel so they said to join the tanker. I found the tanker and my heart was beating a little faster by then and the tanker said, ‘I’m flipping every switch in here but I can’t get the hose to come out.’ That was strike number two.”
For strike number three, Saratoga’s flight deck barricade wouldn’t deploy. Shumaker was running out of options: “I was down to 200 pounds of fuel. I climbed to 3,000 feet and punched out and strike number four was the parachute didn’t open…. I pulled the D-ring to manually deploy the chute and nothing happened, but pulled harder and it finally opened.” A nearby destroyer picked him up and ingloriously returned him to the carrier.
F-8 operations could be scary for the ground crew as well. John Borry, a plane captain and jet mechanic with VF-13 aboard Shangri La, didn’t like crawling down the engine intake. “That’s a good 20 feet long on the inside,” he says. “Sometimes someone would stand behind the airplane and start whistling through the tailpipe like the engine was starting and you’d scramble out of there real quick!”
The F-8’s giant air intake earned it another nickname: Gator. “That intake is down so low you couldn’t walk anywhere near the front of the airplane,” says Borry. “One day another guy got too close and it started to suck him in, but I grabbed his ankles and signaled the pilot to shut the engine down.”
Still, mechanics loved the F-8. Jay Powelson remembers his favorite job was engine runs: “Nothing can compare to an F-8 afterburner shot because it just jars the whole airplane and you hope the chain is going to hold.” The afterburner on the F-8 was an all-or-nothing affair, unlike the staged afterburners on newer aircraft. When F-8s arrived on the Constellation to the care of plane captains and mechanics who had worked only around F-4s, says Powelson, “Four or five guys hit the deck when the F-8 lit the afterburner. They thought something had blown up.”
Louis Zezoff, a maintainer on the Coral Sea in 1961-1962, remembers watching the aircraft maneuver: “There wasn’t a lot of rules and regulations back then…. The pilots taught themselves. The pilots couldn’t wait to get in the seat and fly off the carrier.
Eugene Chancy got the first MIG kill with a gun. All three pilots were in fighter squadron VF-211. Marr described his MIG engagement in Mersky’s
Flying with Vampatella on his wing, “We pull hard into them and the fight’s on,” he recalls. “Two Migs split off, and we pass the other head on.” After missing twice with his cannon, he was 1,000 feet above the MIG when he tried firing a Sidewinder, “but the missile can’t hack it and falls to the ground. The MIG has been in ’burner for four or five minutes now and is mighty low on fuel, so he rolls and heads straight for his base. I roll in behind, stuff it in ’burner, and close at 500 knots. At a half-mile, I fire my last ’Winder, and it chops off his tail and starboard wing.”
Marr’s kill was a typical F-8 engagement: The aircraft was a true dogfighter from the rear. Again, the F-8 had to be within visual range to engage, unlike the newer F-4, which could engage the enemy from longer ranges with its radar-beam-following Sparrow missiles. In addition, the F-4 required two crew members. Mersky says that Vought marketers dreamed up “Last of the Gunfighters” when they learned of the F-4’s lack of internal gun and its twocrew concept, and fleet pilots quickly picked up the name and developed a friendly rivalry with their F-4 counterparts.
Although both Air Force and Navy F-4s were eventually equipped with guns, the nickname stuck. By the end of Vietnam, F-8 pilots claimed the highest kill ratio of any aircraft of the war: 19 Migs downed to only three F-8 losses.
Of course, those statistics also reflected the relatively low numbers of F-8s in the fight. “F-8 pilots, although ready and able, did not see as many Migs throughout the war as their F-4 compatriots,” Mersky
F-8 Crusader Units of the Vietnam War.